The Cooper Temple Clause
At its most arresting, the music of Calla hums with tension along the line between polarities. It is the sound of anxious restrained ferocity, flashes of hubris coexisting tenuously with a breed of nervous ennui—music that is at once ambitious and circumspect, like an anthill…or a wasp’s nest. Certainly not the kind of sound best experienced as a distant, pounding backdrop—muffled by brick walls inside a shabby club—to fraught negotiations over a press list snafu at the door. But in this business, we take what we’re given, and following frustratingly lost minutes of head-scratching entreaties and fruitless phone calls, tenacity (well, alright, sheer stubbornness) finally won the day only to discover damn near half of a very short set had already been consigned to history.
Walking in far too close to the end of a cover of Can’s “Mother Sky” for it to really register, I was soon rescued from any potential sulk by the sheer ominous beauty of “Fear of Fireflies” from 2001’s Scavengers. Reticent as the band appear onstage, they nevertheless seemed to be pushing this fan favorite out almost brazenly at hip-level, like some mutant birth—muted horror vying with lifeblood eroticism. The few people who had arrived this early in the evening to cluster near the stage seemed transfixed. Aurelio Valle’s hushed vocals may be rooted in self-doubt, but they have evolved into something charged and weighty with guarded sexuality. Wayne Magruder strokes his drum skins with maracas more sensually than he has any right to, and Sean Donovan wrestles sheer resonant beseeching melodicism from the upper frets of his bass guitar (for this tour, additional member Pete Gannon shared guitar duties with Valle) like Peter Hook with more fuzz but way less attitude. Live, the band’s sound is both feral and melancholy, a tantalizing taboo glimpse of something like oblivion.
There followed two new songs, one as yet unnamed and the second currently titled “Dawned on Me”. The former was notable for Valle’s guitar sound, alternating between a restless low buzz and full-on ear-besieging shrieks like the world’s most mournful hornet attack (when discussing Calla, these insect metaphors are as unavoidable as the oft-noted urban-rural tension), while the latter raised the tempo and came across easily as pop-brutal as early Jesus and Mary Chain, only more bewildered and vulnerable.
The set closed all too abruptly with the dejected funk of “Televised” (from last year’s Televise), those aching coyote-call snail-crawl rockabilly riffs reverberating off the dank walls, the choppy percussive swing of a blistered sidewinder inviting both resignation and animation, at once enervating and energizing, all indolence and invigoration. Uh-huh, contradictions and unpredictability throughout; even in the way this closer metamorphosed (ha, more insect references) into a spooky blue-lit cover of Syd Barrett’s harrowing and disheveled “Dark Globe”, making it, along with the hearts of a growing crowd, their own.
The Cooper Temple Clause are from Reading, England. There are six band members. Their singer, Ben Gautrey, sounds quite a bit like Liam Gallagher. Their haircuts look like a cross between the Casablancas-haystack and late ‘80s Smith-and-Gallup mattress-explosions, but only if the latter two had been caught in a downpour. Scattered all over the stage are enough synths to give Rick Wakeman serious keyboard envy. They play a weird hybrid of pop, rock and metal, some of which veers uncomfortably close to Britpop (but just as often veers away again). If I’m not making them sound too appealing, it only reflects my mood at the time—disappointed as I was at missing so much of an already short (and encore-free) set by a band I love. But what do I know? It was clear the vast majority of the crowd, featuring a fervid indie-chick contingent, was not here for the openers. And, as if in recognition of this, the Cooper Temple Clause proceeded to deliver a fierce, energetic and rousing set that not only played to the converts, but won over this crotchety doubter in the process.
If the band’s modus operandi is its pop-glam-prog-metal eclecticism interspersed with jazz licks and electronic squalls and squeals, its real signature is the often soft, melodic opening bars that proceed to ratchet up into veritable maelstroms of darkwave noise. On this night, during a fifteen song set (a full nine of which can be found on the bonus CD version of their most recent full-length Kick up the Fire, and Let the Flames Break Loose) that only got stronger, especially notable were the darkly brooding “The Same Mistakes”, the creepy-explosive “Did You Miss Me?”, the warm vibe-y “Music Box”, and raunchy, exuberant set closers “Promises Promises” and “Let’s Kill Music”(“Achilles Last Stand”-era Led Zeppelin meets Mott the Hoople, sort of). Looking a little claustrophobic on a small stage, the band could not be accused of giving less than their vein-bulging all. The only vaguely sour note was at the end when the casually tossed Sacred Sweat Towel(™) was instantly returned by a strangely prudish Vancouver crowd clearly not especially enamored of bodily fluids on a night when the men’s bathroom had some pretty severe and obvious plumbing problems.
And sure, as befitting a band recently signed to a major label here in North America (RCA), the CTC were slick and professional (even their set list was typed instead of scrawled), looking and sounding like rock stars. But dynamic and enjoyable as they were on stage, I can’t imagine chatting up a storm with them at the merch table like I did with the ego-free yet genuinely interesting guys from Calla. Considering the reputation of New York bands, that last observation was just one more contradiction in a night full of them.